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Q and A: When you must have a real Christmas tree

Are you one who must have a 'real' tree at Christmas? Some of us are purists like that, while others enjoy the convenience and cost-savings of a 'fake' tree.
Shopping for a real tree? Give it a good thump to see if needles fall off: not a great sign. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

Are you one who must have a 'real' tree at Christmas? Some of us are purists like that, while others enjoy the convenience and cost-savings of a 'fake' tree. Real tree-lovers talk of tradition in hunting for just the right tree, the fresh pine smell etc. It's not a rational argument, you either gotta have a real tree or you're happy with pulling the plastic replica out of storage each December. So, if it's a real tree you're after, here's a few thoughts from our gardening expert Jim Hole on how to do it right.

Q: People want to enjoy a real tree for as long as possible, but if you put it up early, aren't you asking for falling needles etc.? How do you keep a real tree fresh and alive?

Hole: That's right, it is alive, so think of it like a plant--it must have water, constantly, and lots of it. When you bring a fresh tree home, you must make a new cut on the trunk--about a couple centimetres off the bottom--and stick it in water right away. Even if you're keeping it in a cold garage for a while, put it in a pail of water. Trees use that water and energy to hold onto their needles. Some last longer than others--pine and fir last a bit longer than spruce.

Q: And then you can bring it inside and it'll last?

Hole: The initial cut may seal itself off, so I'd give it a second cut before bringing it inside. Then keep the water topped up inside--you can't let the tree dry out. You don't have to fuss with adding sugar or an aspirin--just keep the water reservoir filled, always. Ideally, the tree will be happier in cool conditions, but water is the main thing.

Q: What if you don't want the hassle of falling needles, don't have space, or can't afford a real tree--but don't want to go the fake route? 

Hole: I only had real trees growing up, but now I have a pre-decorated fake tree that I just stretch wrap each year--unravel it and I'm done. But I get it, I do like a real tree smell too. People will buy pine bough wreaths to get that smell indoors, or they can substitute other plants for a tree: Norfolk Pine is a popular choice, and it's a plant that will continue to live beyond the season. Some even decorate a pineapple. You can also do a winterscape on your front step or back porch, with pine boughs, birch sticks, fake berries and other living greenery.

Q: Or, you can add poinsettias and other Christmas-type plants to the indoor decor.

Hole: Right. People love Amarylis bulbs, Christmas cactus and, of course, poinsettia. There's so many colours, patterns and variations of poinsettia, but 80 per cent of those sold are red. The top tip for these is to keep them moist (not over wet), away from drafts/heat vents and to give them light during the day. Keep them by a window and then in the evening you can move them anywhere for when you're entertaining etc.  These will last through the season and even way beyond that.